September 5, 2000
Preserving Grandma


"Y'know," David said thoughtfully, "if we had an earthquake right now ... your Grandma would end up all over the floor." And he dabbed at another smudge on the antique canning jar.

Its freshly-polished twin stood gleaming in the living room window.

One of these days I should probably come clean and tell him that those aren't REALLY my grandmother's ashes in the canning jars: that it's just ordinary, garden-variety potpourri. But right now I'm having too much fun, watching him handle them as gingerly as if they were the Sacred Urns of Mission Dolores.

"I know," I sighed. "But they look so pretty, sitting there in the window."

I love those canning jars. Those canning jars are incredibly dear to me. They were a birthday present from my Grandma St. John, for one thing ... one of the last birthday presents she gave me before she died. For that reason alone they are valuable to me beyond measure. But they also recall a time in my life that is both painful and pleasurable to think about, now: my *Homemaker Days.* Those feverishly houseproud years, pre-AOL, when Martha Stewart was my new personal god, "Country Living Magazine" was my Bible ... and nothing moved me quite like the sight of an artful arrangement of wicker baskets, dried flowers and little ceramic geese.


When I ran away three years ago, those canning jars were tucked carefully into the laundry basket,  along with my clothes, my childrens' baby books, my two best dress suits, my computer disks (with all of my EdmundKaz correspondence on them), my new Stabbing Westward CD. Those jars have held a place of honor everywhere I've lived since then: on the kitchen counter in both of the apartments I shared with The Oregano Boyfriend ... on the top shelf of the bookcase, in my beloved Tree House ... and now, perched on the living room windowsill, here in The Castle.

I love the way they catch the late-afternoon sunlight. I love the little touch of *feminine* they add to an apartment swimming in *masculine.* I love the feelings they evoke in me: peace, pleasure, family, home, continuity.

I envision those jars, glistening in a kitchen window or on top of a fireplace mantle or on a dining room table, in the house David and I will share together someday.

So I should probably take better care of them. I should polish them more often. Maybe spring for some fancy-pants antique glass cleaner and a real chamois, instead of the Windex and paper towels we use now. I should dump out the old, musty potpourri once in a while, and refill them with lavendar or lilac blossoms or sprigs of fresh eucalyptus.

And I probably shouldn't leave them precariously parked in a Bay Area apartment window ... two days after the big Napa earthquake.

I've spent large chunks of my life actively fearing -- and living in anticipation of -- disaster of some sort or another.

As a little kid growing up in Seattle, it was earthquakes. In the spring of 1965 we were hit by an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale. "Everything started to wiggle and jiggle," I wrote for my first-grade homework assignment, later that day. "All of us ran outside. Every glass was cut. I thought it was an airplane." That earthquake made a powerful and lasting impression on me. I spent the rest of my childhood, waiting for the next one to hit.

As a teenager, I obsessed about fire. Mainly I worried that all of my precious diaries and journals would go up in flames one night while I slept. So I kept all of my important writings packed up in a suitcase under my bed ... never more than a fingertip away from where I lay. 

As a young mother in the early 80's, it was nuclear war. One accidental viewing of "The Day After," and for awhile I completely stopped planning for the future. Mostly I just sat around, clutching my infant daughter and weeping.

At various times in my life I've been obsessively fearful of car accidents, terminal illness, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, eviction. For the year and a half that I lived in Oregon, I worried (legitimately) about collapsing ceilings.

Lately I suppose I worry most about a lapse in my recovery. That would be a disaster.

But for the most part, my days of obsessive fear and worry about disasters -- natural or otherwise -- seem to be over.

Permanently, I hope.

So when I moved to the Bay Area two years ago, did I come full circle and return to the fear of my childhood: earthquakes?

Nahhh. I had bigger things to worry about once I got here. (Job-hunting. Closet space. Learning how to light the ugly pink stove.) David drove me around and showed me most of the important landmarks of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The missing Embarcadero freeway. The spot where the Cyprus Structure collapsed and killed so many people. The steel crossbeam retrofitting everywhere. The new buildings in the Marina District, built to replace those that collapsed and burned.

(And then he drove me around and showed me the landmarks of the 1906 earthquake ... and the 1979 earthquake ... and the 1984 earthquake ... )

It's difficult to drive around the Bay Area and NOT be reminded of earthquakes, frankly. Everybody is pretty blasé about it. When the quake hit Napa this past weekend, it was big news the first day: by the end of the weekend, the story was wedged in between a report on the Sausalito Arts Fair and a review of "Bring It On." Earthquakes just seem to be a way of life around here.

Sort of like double-parking. Or cheese.

The way I see it, there are two ways I can live my life, here in California: I can either spend it waiting for the next Big One to hit ...

... or I can spend it not waiting for the next Big One to hit. 

I'm not talking about emergency preparedness. I firmly and fervently believe in preparing for the eventuality of something you can neither predict nor prevent: in this case, another earthquake hitting the Bay Area during my lifetime. I absolutely want to be prepared. I want to do all of the stuff they suggest: have escape routes planned. Have meeting places set up in advance. Decide on an emergency communication plan. Lay in disaster supplies: plenty of extra batteries and drinking water and little individual packages of string cheese. I want to walk around The Castle with David and figure out what we would do if an earthquake hits. Where would be the safest place to go? How would we get in contact with each other if one of us wasn't home?

If all of your Bob Dylan CDs are tragically crushed when the bookcase falls over ... will we have to replace them right away?

Preparing for it is one thing. Waiting for it is another. I'm going to prepare for the worst ... but hope for the best.

And just to be on the safe side? I think maybe we WILL move those antique canning jars out of the window.

*Grandma* would probably appreciate it.

throw a rock